Managing Volunteers and Expectations

Volunteerism April 15, 2011

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

During National Volunteer Week (Apr. 10-16), many organizations take the opportunity to shine the spotlight on their volunteers – acknowledging and recognizing their efforts through awards and appreciation events. But as I noted in my last post, Harnessing Volunteer Power, many organizations are struggling to harness all of the goodwill being offered because they don’t have the resources in place to effectively recruit, train and manage potential volunteers.

This sentiment was echoed by one of our blog readers who offered the following comment on my recent Are You Ready for Volunteer Weekpost:

“I’m happy to see all the options for thanking volunteers, unhappily, there’s a lot of volunteer potential that is untapped because nonprofits don’t know how to find and use it. The best way to honor volunteers is to incorporate them into the team and give them something meaningful to do that matters.”

Identifying Gaps Between Volunteer Opportunities and Experiences


Research conducted on behalf of Volunteer Canada identifies this gap between what volunteers are looking for today and how organizations are engaging these individuals. The “Bridging the Gap” research report notes that “advances in technology, shifting demographics and increased resource pressures mean today’s organizations must re-evaluate all facets of their volunteer policies and practices, and ultimately embrace different approaches.”

The research found there are gaps between the opportunities organizations are providing and the meaningful volunteer experience, such as:

  • Many people are looking for group activities BUT few organizations have the capacity to offer them;
  • Many people come with professional skills BUT many professionals are looking for volunteer tasks that involve something different from their work life;
  • Organizations are expected to clearly define the roles and boundaries of volunteers BUT many volunteers want the flexibility to initiate what they have to offer (i.e., create their own volunteer opportunity);
  • Many organizations want long-term commitment BUT more volunteers want shorter-term opportunities; and
  • Many organizations focus on what they need BUT many volunteers come with personal goals to be met.
Banner admin roles - saving volunteers   

Managing Expectations – It’s Not all Sunshine & Rainbows


The gap between volunteer expectations and the “meaningful” opportunities non-profit and membership organizations are actually able to provide is being felt by both sides of the volunteer equation - the individuals offering their time and the organizations who are the intended recipients of this goodwill.

In What lurks behind the volunteer boom, Sue Carter Kahl, Executive Director of Volunteer San Diego offers an organizational perspective:

it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the organizations who would transform this good will into improving the community. ...Volunteers don’t organize themselves. Someone knowledgeable about the organization needs to screen, match, orient, train, supervise and engage them. Before that happens, someone has to think of how volunteers can help and plan accordingly. ...

Many prospective volunteers never get beyond prospective status. The agencies who might engage them are so busy trying to keep up with their day-to-day activities that no one can respond to the phone calls and best intentions of volunteers. ... Long-term capacity building can drain short-term capacity. It’s difficult to invest in the future when it’s a struggle to survive in the present.”

On the flip side of the coin, many individuals who want to volunteer their time may be ignored or turned away by organizations that don’t have the resource capacity to manage their volunteer activities. In Don’t let Goodwill Slip Through the Cracks, Gary Bagley suggests that

“the untold story of the 2009 volunteerism boom is that many people who want to volunteer can't. That's because many nonprofits that could benefit from volunteers lack the capacity to recruit, train, and manage them. The NYC Service Blueprint to Increase Civic Engagement report (April 2009) stated that 54 percent of city nonprofits surveyed turned away volunteers due to capacity constraints. On average one of every three potential volunteers could not be used.”

The blog comment I quoted earlier was noting the reader’s frustration with wasted volunteer opportunities (see Wasted Nonprofit Resource) where individuals are willing to volunteer their time and expertise, but become frustrated by the lack of support or ineffective volunteer management.

It can be particularly difficult to create and manage meaningful volunteer opportunities for experienced professionals. In his article, Volunteer Voices: Baby Boomers are a Vast Untapped Resource (Times-Standard), Todd Metcalf notes,

 “there is no doubt that there is a changing nature of civic engagement. There is a growing recognition of episodic volunteering. Episodic volunteering is about giving some time to an organization in a short period of time. But one of the great myths about episodic volunteering is that it's singular: People come, volunteer and then go away. Rather, people come, volunteer for a little while, then come back over time, but they connect and work with a variety of organizations. ...They are seeking a variety of roles and often some type of professional engagement.

Providing Meaning to Volunteers and Capacity for Organizations


Volunteer Calgary piloted a project to recruit and involve high-skilled or professionally skilled individuals in voluntary organizations with the goal to provide meaning to the volunteers and capacity for the organizations. Here are the five important lessons they learned through their research project:

  1. Essential Strategic Leadership – The Executive Director must champion a culture and structure that supports the full integration of high skills volunteers.
  2. Role and Place of the Manager of Volunteers – Organizations need a staff Manager of Volunteers who is a member of the management team.
  3. Professionally Managed Volunteer Programs require an alignment of systems, policies and processes for paid and unpaid staff.
  4. Valuing Volunteers – Volunteers and staff need to understand the "value" that volunteers contribute to the organization to overcome the outdated perceptions of "I am/you are just a volunteer."
  5. Readiness for an integrated human resource strategy approach – To succeed, this approach needs to be integrated with the organization's strategic plan.

In a blog post back in November, Jeffrey Cufaude suggested: “let's make 2011 the year when more volunteers say they are grateful because the organizations they belong to embrace and respect their time, talents, and interests and use them to achieve meaningful results for their professions/industries and the stakeholders that they serve and affect.”  This sure sounds good to me.

How Can WildApricot Help With Volunteer Engagement & Management?


Association or Membership Management Software, like WildApricot can help you to attract new volunteers, communicate with existing ones, and keep track of them all more effectively. Our membership Management Software acts as a kind of virtual assistant - automating and streamlining administrative tasks, including volunteer management.  Here are some ways in which WildApricot might help:

  • Keep your volunteer database up-to-date automatically
    • Create groups on membership/volunteer application forms to identify different types of members/volunteers – to enable customized emails (newsletters, event details, etc.) to individual groups and special forums for these groups
  • Communicate quickly and easily with your volunteers
    • Via customized emails
    • By creating volunteer- or member-only forums to enable various volunteer groups and their staff /committee/board liaisons to discuss topics and communicate among specific groups on topics of interest to their specific volunteer activity
    • Create a blog to communicate volunteer opportunities, projects, successes and volunteer recognition
  • Create member-only or volunteer-only pages or sections of your website

READ MORE about Volunteer Management:

Photo source: Brent Danley's Photostream

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Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.


  • Jill Friedman Fixler:

    The volunteer boon is an unparalleled opportunity for nonprofits. Thank you Lori for your comments here. In our work with nonprofit organizations in the US and Canada we find a couple of trends that pertain to this post:

    -    Volunteer engagement professionals are not adept at engaging volunteers in their work. They give away the best and brightest to the organization and suffer from "doing it all" not delegating. There are many leadership opportunities available in volunteer departments: talent scouts/recruiters, interviewer/screeners, mentors, trainers, and evaluators. Volunteer Engagement professionals must demonstrate their own ability to engage skilled volunteers and model this behavior for the rest of the organization.

    -    Many nonprofits are focused on scarcity in this challenging economy. They forget that within their profound circles of influence they have all of the skills and human capital that they would ever need. Are you asking your donors, vendors, neighbors, newsletter subscribers, clients and their families, and event participants what skills they would gladly share with you? If you engage volunteers in screening, training, and mentoring you will have the capacity to engage the new volunteer boom.

    -    Today's volunteers, particularly those born post 1945 are looking for entrepreneurial opportunities and innovative and flexible organizations. Are you engaging skilled volunteers to help you leverage new ideas and new programs?

    The refrain throughout North America is all about doing more with less. How about thinking differently now and doing more with more?


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